There are several different yoga poses which we call “back bends”. You may have practiced them in class either lying face down trying to lift arms and legs up or lying down with a block under your hips or upper back. Does this sound familiar? Back bends are one of the most important movements in yoga but many of us are cheating!
The lumbar spine, from the top of your hips to mid back, is the most flexible portion of the back. Surprise, surprise it’s also the most prone to injury. Over the years I’ve learned that during a yoga class there is an intense pressure to preform. Maybe you look at your neighbor and try to emulate. When it comes to back bends this usually means the student is deeply bending back in the lumbar area and not bending back anywhere else! I think this happens because it is easier but if you do the poses correctly not only will you gain strength, you will progress to more difficult poses and make your muscle groups equally strong.
You can start by imagining your are stretching from the top of your head to the tips of your toes. The whole body is involved. When you bend back remember that the focus it to stretch the front. Make sense? Give these poses a try.
Half-moon pose – From a standing position bring both hands to your low back, lock your knees and try to bend as much as you can in your lower back. Notice how far you go? From neutral standing, try it again. This time reach your hands over top of your head. Root down through the big toe, knees bent and active legs. As you begin to bend back reach up through the fingers and stretch the front. Notice a difference?
If you are feeling tight along the front try to stretch the hips, quadriceps and chest with Hanumanasana (lunge) or fish pose. If you’re interested in preforming the wheel chakrasana you will want to warm up these areas. If it’s still not accessible keep working on the back strengthening cobra, locust and bow.
Protect yourself from injury by stretching the front and bending back with the whole body. Try this variation of bridge. Lying flat on your mat bend the knees so the soles of the feet are on the floor. This is where you would normally thrust the hips up. Instead place a block between both knees, open the feet a little wider then push the knees away from you until the hips lift up. Your back remains in a straight, neutral position. This is great to build strength in your glutes (your butt!).
Some students have approached me asking about back pain in back bending exercises. If that’s you here are my final tips. Firstly, pain in the lower back can happen for multiple reasons but there really is no way to tell unless you get an x-ray or if you’ve been diagnosed. You can still preform the back bends but make sure to go only until you feel comfortable but not until you have pain! For example in locust maybe you only lift your foot a centimeter of the ground or maybe you don’t even lift it up and instead activate the muscles by pushing the tops of the feet and toes into the ground.
If you take a look at the picture I’ve posted you can see an example of me practicing Chakrasana. Now, if you look from my left foot and follow the arch to the tops of my shoulders you can see a nice curve happening. The arch flows equally without too much bending in the low back. Notice how the arch is broken when it gets to my shoulders. I have chronically tight shoulders and upper back. To make the back bend more seamless I could do some opening exercises for the shoulders to help my hands come closer to the feet. In an example of someone who is bending to much in the low back they would look like a pyramid shape with the point at the low back.
I hope this helps you to deepen your practice. Watch yourself as you practice and notice if you are cheating. If you still don’t understand contact me with your questions!